Five Skills Every Technical Writer Needs
A listener to the Tech Writer Voices podcast suggested I do a podcast on the following:
Give ideas to people who are just starting out in technical writing. What is the base of knowledge that every technical writer should have?
And so in preparation for the podcast, I offer these five skills or characteristics as absolute musts for the technical writer:
1. Facility with technology
You have to be somewhat technical, although there are many different kinds of technicalese. You may have a bent towards one of the sciences, and can understand the inner workings of cells or atoms. Or you may be web savvy and know how to interpret code. Or maybe you're just curious about how things work. You can learn technologies you don't understand, if you have the motivation. I personally enjoy learning about complicated systems. This understanding brings a sense of achievement and knowledge that is rewarding at the end of the day.
2. Ability to write clearly
The essential skill of any technical communicator is to disambiguate (to use a word my father introduced to me the other day). Your core job will consist of taking complicated things and trying to explain them in easy-to-understand ways. You can't just pass off an explanation you only half understand. Writing about something (as opposed to talking about it) requires you to understand it thoroughly. Avoid passive sentences and long constructions. Go from old ideas to new. Define acronyms and avoid assumptions about what the user knows. Make the reader feel smart.
3. Talent in showing ideas graphically
I underestimated the importance of using Visio until just a few months ago. Any time you can show an idea graphically, you score a hundred points with the reader. Almost everyone is a visual person. People understand better when you can communicate your ideas visually (and I'm not just talking about screenshots here, although they do count for something). It is surprisingly easy to create half-decent diagrams in Visio. They go a long way toward making your writing clear.
4. Patience in problem-solving/troubleshooting
Unless you have patience, you'll never make it. I think 80 percent of IT work consists of problem solving. What do you do when you can't figure out how to do something? Do you slam your fist into your keyboard? Do you scream and curse when you can't immediately figure something out? It's amazing how you can see a seemingly impossible problem through with patience and persistence.
5. Ability to interact with SMEs
I talked about this in my last podcast on Tech Writer Voices. Interacting with SMEs is one the most overlooked skills in technical writing. You have to be part investigative reporter, part journalist. You can't be shy about going after certain people to extract information. And you can't be too proud to ask the "dumb technical questions" that make engineers do double-takes. A lot of this interaction can come about if you're lucky enough to simply sit near SMEs.
I know I'm missing a few more essential qualities. I'd like to add a few more here. Any ideas?
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.